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Fri, Mar. 6th, 2009 04:12 pm
A secret Japanese Person's Guide to Berlin... and the British

Tabi means "traveling" in Japan. It's also the name of an interesting lifestyle magazine. Last week, returning by train from Holland to Berlin, I stopped off in Dusseldorf and ransacked the Japanese district near the station for bottles of cold green tea and magazines, stuff we can't get in Berlin because there isn't a community of Japanese office workers here. I bought a copy of Tabi, which happened to be a Berlin special. And so, for much of the five hour journey from Dusseldorf to Berlin, I leafed through dozens of pages packed with what I recognised to be the best information about the best-kept Berlin secrets -- tips, addresses, shops, markets, galleries. As usual, the information the Japanese had assembled was far better than anything anyone else -- including local foreign-language magazines like Ex-Berliner -- had even come close to. The photography was beautiful, the maps and addresses painstakingly assembled, and the sensibility irreproachable; the city was portrayed in soft autumnal colours, with a focus on the kind of ostalgie goods with their wabi sabi patina that most excited me when I first arrived here and had a big empty apartment to fill. It made me feel excited about getting home, and it made me feel that Berlin really is the best place I could be living, outside of Japan.



Japanese guides to foreign places, written exclusively and almost secretly for other Japanese people, are fascinating. Not only because they're so excellently researched and presented, with such a good grasp of esoteric consumer information. For every magazine stocked with shopping tips there's a book filled with cultural warnings and sweeping judgments. We happened to mention Ridley Scott's film Blade Runner yesterday, but did you know that Ridley Scott employed a Japanese housekeeper in the 80s called Keiko Takao, who wrote a funny but trenchant book about life in London between 1970 and 1990 which became a best-seller in Japan? For many young Japanese bound for the capital Takao's essays remain essential texts to this day -- a Secret Japanese Person's Guide to the British. Needless to say, the book has never been translated into English.

Takao's first impressions, on arriving in London in 1972, were that London was amazingly old-fashioned and poor. The city was full of working class people signing on the dole and playing music. These people (I was one myself in London for several years!) were full of contempt for City workers and the army. However, they talked in a more intelligent and polite way than British people do today. Takao blames Margaret Thatcher for making British people more American, and reducing levels of intelligence and decency amongst ordinary working people.

Takao notes that London's technology was poor, in the early 1970s, because of low levels of education amongst the population. For instance, she decribes how London Underground installed new ticket machines in tube stations, only to remove them again after three days because the public were so foxed by the new machines that they took ages to buy a ticket, and queues grew longer and longer. Even when simpler machines were installed, they broke frequently.

But, according to Takao, the British don't mind queuing. This is partly because they're idle, compared with other Europeans. But it's also a sort of philosophy the British have evolved, a weary philosophy of patience, a sense of the inevitability of disappointment. "There's more pleasure in looking forward to things than getting them," one British person once told Takao (in a queue, naturally). She concluded that the British have a philosophy of life, and the philosophy is resignation.

The British, say Takao, speak gently towards foreigners, but their outlook is quite arrogant. They'll employ sophistry rather than admit mistakes (guilty as charged!) and don't want to learn from others; that seems humiliating to them.

Googling Keiko Takao, I found this blog written in English by a Japanese person who'd discovered her book. "I found a book about Britain in my flat's bookshell. There are some Japanese books which was left by someone who used to live here. The book was written by Keiko Takao who's lived in London for more than 30 years. This is the truth of Britain and British people. I love it! I want to read some other her books as well!"



At this point the description takes a Morrissey-esque turn: "I found that Japan will accept immigrants from 2015 in this book...is it true?? I completely disagree with it! If Japan would do this, Beautiful Japanese culture would be lost... I see the tragety of UK. They accepted many immigrants in 80S then they lost their landscape as the result. A lot of black people are living in my place. I don't believe this is London maybe Jamaica or something. Many places had been occupied by black people and Muslim. I can't find original UK here now...this is awful!! I swear Japan is the most beautiful country in all over the world. We must keep our cultures even though population is reducing."

Now, I clearly disagree with this person; black and Muslim people were about the only thing that redeemed life in London, for me. (Reader, I married one.) What's more, I don't think this is the opinion of most Japanese people in London, either -- why, otherwise, would they tend to live so frequently in black and Muslim areas like Whitechapel and Hackney? But I can't deny that the Morrissey element in this critique -- the idea that a culture's specificity is diluted by immigrants, and that Japan should regard Britain as a cautionary tale -- is quite widespread in Japan, and part of what gives the nation such a unique flavour. This is an irreducible conundrum for me, and I can only answer it by saying that true diversity requires that there be some nations which are not internally diverse, as well as some which are.

In another essay, Takao looks at life in Southwark. Without sentimentality, she describes the situation as "terrible": in real life, rather than politically correct advertising images, she says the white and black working class people on estates avoid each other. White people living far from black people, on the other hand, are quick to declare (hypocritically) that segregation is evil.

The final piece of kiss-and-tell in Keiko Takao's book involves a visit to Ridley Scott's ancient mother, an antediluvian Victorian lady who still believes the British Empire rules the seven seas. Old Mrs Scott is a rich bourgeois who has never known working class people, and insists there are no poor white people, only poor immigrants. Keiko adds that the old lady is "innocent, lovely and interesting". The Scott family's reaction to the book is unknown.

54CommentReplyFlag


(Anonymous)
Fri, Mar. 6th, 2009 03:22 pm (UTC)
Duesseldorf

Hi, Momus.

If you happen to be in Duesseldorf again you should not only go to "Immermannstr." but also visit the "Eko-Haus" in Duesseldorf-Oberkassel. I think you might like it.

http://www.eko-haus.de/e_home.htm


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(Anonymous)
Fri, Mar. 6th, 2009 03:42 pm (UTC)

Keiko Takao's book does seem to do a pretty good job of describing 70s London. But London has changed a lot since then, and a lot more than other big European cities. The Paris of now doesn't feel that much different from the Paris I knew in the early eighties, but the London of now feels quite different. Thatcher obviously wrought permanent changes, and on top of that vast amounts of money flowed in as London regained its ascendency as a global financial capital following the big bang. No doubt it will change again, as the recession will hit it harder than continental Europe. Clearly a lot of the changes have been for the worse. But you can't deny that London at least has a certain driving dynamic lacking in other European capitals.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Fri, Mar. 6th, 2009 03:44 pm (UTC)

Oh yes, I think that's all true.


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(Anonymous)
Fri, Mar. 6th, 2009 04:34 pm (UTC)

Yes a future Tokyo stuffed full of Essex chavs with the occasional native here and there. Love to see you swanning around that with a smile on your face and a twinkle in your good eye. "Morrissey-esque turn" indeed. Do you just not get his lyrics at all?


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Fri, Mar. 6th, 2009 05:11 pm (UTC)

a future Tokyo stuffed full of Essex chavs with the occasional native here and there. Love to see you swanning around that with a smile on your face and a twinkle in your good eye.

You may be joking, but that's the impression I got of parts of Bangkok and Hong Kong. And I didn't like it one bit.

"Morrissey-esque turn" indeed. Do you just not get his lyrics at all?

Both in his lyrics and his interviews, Morrissey has embraced a wistful nostalgia for a time when England was "truly English". Come on, surely we don't need to dispute that at this point?


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sarmoung
sarmoung
The Empire Never Ended
Fri, Mar. 6th, 2009 04:35 pm (UTC)

Sorry if it sounds like nit-picking, but most Japanese people - who don't have an equivalent locale to say the Korean community in New Malden - don't live in Whitechapel or Hackney. Frequency of specialist letting agencies, shops, services and on indicates they very much prefer an arc around Ealing-Acton-Finchley. Of course, these areas have generally been the ones chosen by/for Japanese professionals and their families. In much of this stretch, there's an intriguing Jewish and Japanese crossover. I'm not sure if that's a pattern repeated anywhere other than London or not.

There is certainly a younger wave around the East End. As to why they're there, rental values, word of mouth and cultural intrigue besides, most probably some seductive and informative series of magazine articles back home. Although Stewart Home might be of another opinion... I've taken to using Japanese guides around Europe and it often adds pleasing extra levels to the experience. Although I also feel overly exposed as a pretentious foreigner!


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Fri, Mar. 6th, 2009 05:07 pm (UTC)

most Japanese people - who don't have an equivalent locale to say the Korean community in New Malden - don't live in Whitechapel or Hackney. Frequency of specialist letting agencies, shops, services and on indicates they very much prefer an arc around Ealing-Acton-Finchley.

This is actually true, I guess I was talking about the kind of Japanese people I know and hang out with, ie "creative class" Japanese who tend to be poorer and less prejudiced than the office worker types.


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qscrisp
qscrisp
Fri, Mar. 6th, 2009 05:34 pm (UTC)
Igirisujin ha Okashii

"I found that Japan will accept immigrants from 2015 in this book...is it true?? I completely disagree with it! If Japan would do this, Beautiful Japanese culture would be lost... I see the tragety of UK. They accepted many immigrants in 80S then they lost their landscape as the result. A lot of black people are living in my place. I don't believe this is London maybe Jamaica or something. Many places had been occupied by black people and Muslim. I can't find original UK here now...this is awful!! I swear Japan is the most beautiful country in all over the world. We must keep our cultures even though population is reducing."

I've read one of Takao Keiko's books, and this seems similar to views she has herself presented. She complains about white people giving up their seats on buses to black people. "Who's country is this, anyway?" she asks.

Much of what she says about Britain is quite valid, but there's no self-examination there. I don't know if she means to, but she makes Ridley Scott sound like a tosser. An image from one essay sticks in my mind of her polishing and re-polishing his gold doorbell. She describes her horror and sadness at a Japanese doll that was given to him as a gift that he tossed aside somewhere to gather dust. When she asked who it was from, he couldn't remember.

I find it hard to know what to make of Takao, exactly. While I do delight in seeing Britain scourged, her very slight little essays reeked of the petty neuroses of someone who really, really likes house-cleaning, and she is apt to make statements like, "Well, reader, this may surprise you, but not all rich people in Britain are Jews or Arabs."


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(no subject) - (Anonymous)
imomus
imomus
imomus
Fri, Mar. 6th, 2009 06:19 pm (UTC)

We will lose diversity of culture, but we'll gain understanding and empathy.

That, to me, is a rather sad statement. It implies that understanding and empathy come at the expense of the eradication of difference. In other words, that we only understand and like the things close to us. Now, that goes against Takao's observation about life on Southwark council estates, which is that the closer people are packed together with difference, the less empathetic they feel towards it. And it begs several questions:

- Are you sure that understanding and empathy is enhanced by shifting diversity from something that occurs between cultures to something the occurs within them?

- You talk about wanting nations to welcome in the rest of the world, but in fact diversity in the multiracial societies we have today is selective and historically-specific: it tends to be a post-colonial "diversity" restricted to residents of ex-colonial nations (ie Jamaicans and Indians in the UK) at one end of the social scale, and a "diversity" of the very wealthy (ie oil-rich Arabs in London) at the other. It's hardly a "world in microcosm" or an equal opportunities welcome, and it's becoming less so all the time.

- When you say "empathy and understanding" -- in the context of net difference being reduced -- it really begs the question, "empathy and understanding of what?" Because if difference is reduced, I don't see that there's much to test our empathy levels, or stretch our understanding. It's a bit like saying that you're tolerant of everything except what shocks or disturbs you by contradicting your values. What kind of tolerance is that, really?


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robotmummies
robotmummies
ad reinhardt
Fri, Mar. 6th, 2009 05:40 pm (UTC)

i saw a japanese dictionary of african american slang:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/tranny/110961381/


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(Anonymous)
Fri, Mar. 6th, 2009 06:12 pm (UTC)

White people will probably be extinct in 200 years, or atleast until their countries reach critical mass and they cannot turn back.

Not my problem, but something important to consider.


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endoftheseason
endoftheseason
Fri, Mar. 6th, 2009 06:46 pm (UTC)

There seems to be a problem, something approaching the irrational and hypocritical, with this observation:

'This is an irreducible conundrum for me, and I can only answer it by saying that true diversity requires that there be some nations which are not internally diverse, as well as some which are.'

being in the same piece as this observation:

'Without sentimentality, she describes the situation as "terrible": in real life, rather than politically correct advertising images, she says the white and black working class people on estates avoid each other. White people living far from black people, on the other hand, are quick to declare (hypocritically) that segregation is evil."

On another note:

'Take for example Japan: should Japan shut itself off from the world and adopt "protective" policies to preserve its cultural heritage, or should it open its gates and potentially lose its heritage?'

It should open its gates and lose its heritage. And if it doesn't, then Britain and other Western countries should shut themselves off from the non-Western and non-"First" worlds and adopt protective policies to preserve their cultural heritages. Wouldn't that be grand?


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Fri, Mar. 6th, 2009 07:05 pm (UTC)

There seems to be a problem, something approaching the irrational and hypocritical, with this observation being in the same piece as this observation

They're two different statements from two different people, me and Takao. What's the problem? And how can statements from different people be hypocritical?


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(Anonymous)
Fri, Mar. 6th, 2009 06:54 pm (UTC)

Are you calling Morrissey an obese middle aged loudmouth?

*sob*


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docscarabus
docscarabus
docscarabus
Fri, Mar. 6th, 2009 08:21 pm (UTC)

Great post!

We are constantly bombarded with books seeking to unravel the mysterious ways of the alien Japanese. I've often wondered if thr was an equiivilant in Japanese language.that I was missing due to my daned monolingualism.

Is there a "secret Japanese person's guide" to Americans?


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count_vronsky
count_vronsky
Sat, Mar. 7th, 2009 03:09 am (UTC)


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sat, Mar. 7th, 2009 03:51 am (UTC)

I love Margaret Leng Tan! I saw that Satie Blues thing at a theatre in New York, with Stephin and Claudia from Magnetic Fields.


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(Anonymous)
Sat, Mar. 7th, 2009 08:37 am (UTC)
Jews need Israel for the same reason the Japanese need Japan

"true diversity requires that there be some nations which are not internally diverse, as well as some which are"

This diversity-is-all thing can drag a bit. It tends to turn us into anthropologists, which turns your own creed/religion/identity into just-another-variety, which neuters it somewhat. Jews need Israel for the same reason the Japanese need Japan - a place where you don't have to be self-conscious about your identity.

And the BNP will say - "Who says the British don't need this too? Why can others be children while we must remain the adult?"


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(Anonymous)
Sat, Mar. 7th, 2009 09:08 am (UTC)
Re: Jews need Israel for the same reason the Japanese need Japan

This reminds me of the motto of the Himalayan monks from Lost Horizon (http://imomus.livejournal.com/425114.html): “Everything in moderation, even moderation.” Everything diversified, even method of diversification.


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georgesdelatour
georgesdelatour
Sat, Mar. 7th, 2009 10:18 am (UTC)

Comparing Japan to the UK: the former is ethnically and culturally homogeneous, the latter ethnically and culturally diverse. The former is economically relatively equal, the latter economically relatively unequal. The two characteristics seem to be linked. Homogeneous societies have the political solidarity (or "cohesion", as it's now called) to make economic equality possible. Diverse societies have multiculturalism, which is opposed in principle to that solidarity.

The poor in diverse societies are always competing with the next wave of poor immigrants, and this holds down their wages. The rich in diverse societies tend to see the newest immigrants as useful cheap nannies, plumbers, workers etc - effectively raising theirs.


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georgesdelatour
georgesdelatour
Sat, Mar. 7th, 2009 11:19 am (UTC)

As a Brit I find Japan's exotic monoculture utterly fascinating. I love going there. But there are many Japanese who find that monoculture limiting. Many artistically inclined Japanese go abroad, to taste other flavours. Ryuichi Sakamoto lives in New York most of the time, for instance.

Eastern European societies are mostly homogeneous and mono-cultural, like Japan. There aren't many Somalis in Szczecin. But, aside from maybe Estonia, they don't have that delicious, uninhibited embrace of the new I see in Japan and other Asian societies. This sort of thing:



Economics has brought many East Europeans to work in the UK. Now economics is pulling many of them back, especially as the collapse of Sterling cuts their UK earnings. But in London, I think many are trying to stay on, simply because London feels exciting and Białystok boring.


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